5 Tips to Discover Intimate vs. Grand Landscape & Nature Photography

5 Tips to Discover Intimate vs. Grand Landscape & Nature Photography

1_LAN_WHITESANDS_jim_goldstein.jpg Grand landscapes provide some of the most eye catching and awe inspiring photographs. More times than not it is this type of image that dominates our preconceived vision of what we strive to capture when we head out the door with our camera. The reality is that grand landscapes, while stunning and eye catching, often distract us from other eye catching and inspiring photo subjects.

Intimate nature or landscape photographs focus on finer details or components of an otherwise larger scene. One of the most appealing aspects of intimate nature or landscape work is that subjects are more easily found, seldom identical (as most iconic grand landscapes are), and reflect a more personal vision of the photographer.

Intimate landscapes excel at highlighting textures, colors, shapes, light/shadow, etc. While it’s good to keep an eye out for magical moments that make for grand landscape or nature photos, keep an eye out behind you, below you and even above you. Where you find intimate nature or landscape subjects can be surprising. I’ve found great intimate nature and landscape photos underfoot, beside me while eating lunch, above me while waiting for great light to develop across a broader scene, and even just off the side of the road while driving. These types of subjects can be found most anywhere and almost always yield a great story to tell. Below are 5 tips and example images to help you discover intimate vs grand landscape and nature photographs. For more examples visit my collection of intimate landscape and nature photos on Flickr.

1. Take the time to look for subjects underfoot or in a 10 foot radius of where you are standing – your best photo subject might be underfoot, behind you, next to you or even above your head.

Evolution – Grand to Intimate Example #1:

This photo developed from the larger scene of a classic White Sands desert meadow. I very much wanted to capture how the wind impacted the plants and shifting landscape. Visiting after a wind storm, fresh circular patterns were left in the sand from grass that had been blowing in the wind. In the broader scene these patterns are lost (see below), while in the intimate nature photo (below) the relationship is more clearly portrayed.


2. Turn the focal point of your envisioned grand landscape into a background element to provide context and depth.


Evolution – Grand to Intimate Example #2:
The Grand Teton mountains no matter what the weather conditions are an amazing sight and it is far too easy to focus on them alone. While the image of the mountains are nice, a larger story is told when including more immediate foreground elements. The shape of the native plants, color of the flowers, long shutter speed to highlight the winds of the growing storm, and the looming clouds tie together the scene as a whole.


3. Focus on a particular element of visual interest rather than squeezing an entire scene into frame.


Evolution – Grand to Intimate Example #3:
The top photo is a reflection of my awe in viewing this surreal landscape above the Wave (see my podcast episode on the Wave). I of course wanted to document the entire scene as it was like nothing I had ever scene before. At the same time I also realized that the photo itself did not bring into focus the formations that were the center point of my interest. The “brain rock” formations, after deeper thought, were what captured my imagination most and after careful attention to composition I was able to capture the scene below.


4. Apply these concepts to subjects other than Nature or Landscape photos, as they are universal in helping tell a story through photographs.


Evolution – Grand to Intimate Example #4:
While visiting New York City I happened across a very interesting yet chaotic scene at Rockefeller Center. A charity event was underway to raise money by collecting small change. Once again capturing the enormity of the scene was impossible and did not lend itself to an eye catching image. The normal focal point of this area is the large Christmas Tree that is erected and the collection pit with all the change was off to the side. A little experimentation yielded the image below. By placing my camera on the change and adjusting the depth of field I was able to capture the vast scene of change collected while anchoring the scenes location by including the tree in the background.


5. Don’t rely on just one image to capture a scene. Think in terms of telling a larger story through multiple images via a small portfolio of photos. The sum of many “intimate” styled photographs can often paint a more complete picture than just one sweeping photo.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

Some Older Comments

  • R'laine March 15, 2013 07:32 pm

    I've been trying to think of a word to describe the types of landscape photos I prefer taking, "intimate" is that word. I too, enjoy showing details that perhaps others overlook. Love your White Sand example #1, the intimacy in that image is palpable.

  • Carol Cohen January 14, 2011 07:43 pm

    Thank you so much for this article, Jim. Advancing age and severe arthritis started seriously limiting my walking some years ago and I became a "side of the road" photographer. I now consider my physical limitations to be a blessing in disguise because i have to look for the nearby details! And it's amazing what you can find next to a parking lot while everyone else is racing to get 5 miles down the road! It's all in how you look at it-I swear I was born with macro eyes.

  • Colleen November 22, 2010 03:15 pm

    I've read a lot about "including foreground interest" in landscape photos, but somehow this article expressed it better than many others. Thanks very much!

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer November 13, 2010 01:05 pm

    It's all about changing perspectives. Otherwise you'll get the same images that every other photographer gets when looking at the same scene.

  • Aimee Giese | Greeblemonkey November 13, 2010 09:47 am


    Nature is one of my favorite subjects - I tend to do more macro that the grandiose shots...


  • Marian Moore November 12, 2010 08:48 pm

    great article. I love to shoot landscapes but am often disappointed that the shot doesn't see as much as my eye. these examples give inspiration for a different way of looking at this genre. excellent thanks

  • Lorbie November 12, 2010 03:25 pm

    thank you for the share Jim.
    capturing landscape with a story is very challenging..

    frustration led me to concentrate on other fields instead..
    but your examples gave me inspiration
    to do landscape photography without traveling
    too far.
    (i like the rockefeller shot. :D)

  • JesseAdams November 12, 2010 07:58 am

    This shot I would like to share shows the intimate flowers in the foreground, and behind the grand tree in San Sebastian, Spain.


  • Louise November 12, 2010 04:16 am

    Intimate landscape - two words I never thought would go together. i love details, I love macrophotography for example, but I never thought of looking closely at landscapes. You have just opened my eyes and my mind. I find landscape photography very difficult because I find most of my photos bland. Now I know what to try... Thank you!

  • ratkellar November 12, 2010 03:33 am

    I liked best that he does not ignore or disparage the grand scope -- the Grand Canyon really is one big ditch. But the Grand Scope complemented by the details works best for recording the scene, I think. Textures, colors, contrasts all make the details beautiful.

  • Yolanda November 12, 2010 03:13 am

    Amazing....how you can tell great stories through a good image!!! Thanks always for your extraordinary pics and teaching. I really appreciate them!!!

  • kistabill November 11, 2010 10:40 pm

    Greta article and inspiring shots on flickr. Perhaps there is hope for us who don't have any "dramatic" landscape available

  • Edie Howe November 11, 2010 03:25 pm

    For years I've enjoyed the work of Eliot Porter, and have learned to look for intimate landscapes. It all came to a head at Emerald Pool above Vernal Falls in February of 1977 when I saw a woman with a camera hunkered down by the edge of the water.

    "What are you taking a picture of?" I asked her.

    She pointed to some rocks, outlined by ice on the surface of the water.

    "I love the way the ice curves around the rocks, but there's a band of dark water between them", she replied.

    It all snapped into place for me. I owe a great deal to that woman, she taught me to look close, and to see with intimate eyes.

    Thanks for a great article, Jim.

  • Caroline November 11, 2010 05:32 am

    I found landscape photography to be the toughest genre-- while it's easy to take a good picture, it's quite difficult to get a great one. This article, and the corresponding images, show how you lose a lot of detail when you try to fit the entrie scene into a frame. Not only does it generally make for a less compelling image, but it's uninteresting because everyone else is using the same basic composition.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 11, 2010 04:41 am

    Great Article - use of foreground in Landscapes is tricky. One must pay attention to Hyperfocal Distance and Fibonnaci Composition (you should look this up and also see Rule of Thirds). Sometimes having a striking foreground subject like this HDR of a Red Boat works http://tinyurl.com/2e9mal7

    Regards, Erik

  • Scott November 11, 2010 03:53 am

    Interesting article, well written with great examples included. Thankfully not about "foreground" in landscapes, seemingly a popular subject. I think a lot of photographers try to do this, but it's not so easy when we have "landscape" on our mind. In this photo I tried to capture the sheer power of a huge waterfall, and I'm still trying to learn to consistently look for the opportunities discussed in the article. Thanks.


  • Jens November 11, 2010 03:25 am

    Thank you for the ideas! I always find myself having to do something dramatic in post to make my landscape photos interesting and while others enjoy them, I feel like they are phony baloney.

  • Eric November 11, 2010 01:04 am

    Love the slickrock shots. What an amazing part of the county!